There are many great teams who end up under-performing.  They have the right players, the right coaching, it appears to be their time, and yet when it comes time to perform, time to win, they come up short.  There is nothing more frustrating than being involved with such a failure.  Even watching it from a distance is disheartening.  Think about it for a minute.  You have gone through all the effort of putting together a “Best in Class” A-Team. Months of evaluations, turn-over, hiring, training, setting expectations, and being a Tough Leader.  How is it possible that your A-Team isn’t performing?  How can you make sure your A-Team reaches their potential?

In today’s world everyone is entitled to an opinion and seemingly the right to voice it.  In the workplace, these personal opinions are often openly shared while forming a judgments about other people. This happens at all levels. Sometimes it is malicious and sometimes it is just a casual comment about how we wished so and so would just be better at something.  Most likely, we take part in the personal evaluation judgments ourselves.  This is inevitable, so I am not suggesting you can stop people from commenting on their co-workers.

But sit back for a week and keep score.  Silently listen to the conversations around your office and in your own meetings.  Listen for the number of comments which say something negative about someone versus the amount of positive comments.  Regardless of how strong someone is, watch for the inclination of others  to point out people’s deficiencies.

I believe most teams today are locked in a circular conflict between talent and criticism.  Regardless of the talent someone brings to work every day, we can always find something about them or how they are doing things that could be better.  In many workplaces, this is the primary focus of conversation between co-workers.

As managers, it has become one of our primary duties to identify employees shortfalls. Often this can result in the perceived need of management to need to fix these deficiencies.   After all, that is what Manager’s do, right?  Fix broken things.  So if there are things someone doesn’t do well, we should fix them.  This can permeate an organization until everyone’s most important development goal is to be fixed.  If you have read some of my blogs, you know by now, I’m not in the business of fixing people.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that you should be ignoring the deficiencies of your A-Players.  They most likely don’t interfere with their primary performance and real contribution.

Take, for example, the star salesperson who doesn’t fill out their sales reports on time, or the Project Manager who may not give the best presentations but brings every project in on plan without fail.  What is the point of sitting around talking about how if they could do this or that, they would be better.  The forced distraction only lessens their performance.  Could you imagine football coaches and players sitting around talking about how poorly Peyton Manning, quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, blocks or tackles?  Or that he isn’t really very good at kick-off returns?  It would be ridiculous.  But pay attention around your office and you will hear the same criticisms of your A-Players.

Marcus Buckingham‘s, author of “Go Put Your Strengths to Work”, research found that only 13% of workers felt their strengths were being put to use on a daily basis.  The rest of the time they were performing tasks in areas where they did not make a difference.  How demoralizing.  Rounding out your performers is not as important as finding extra and improved methods for them to focus on their talents.  You need for your A-Players to be completely focused on what they do well!  If they are a quarterback, they need to be throwing the ball.

A Leader does not focus on weaknesses.  Focusing on weaknesses results in creating a performance culture based on the lowest common denominator.  A Leader must understand the strengths of his A-Team and place them in a position everyday where they can maximize those strengths.  Great people are stimulated by performing great work and winning based on their talents and efforts.  Placing them in situations where their weaknesses prevail only creates a mediocre performance.  Leadership is responsible when A-Players are winning… and when they are under-performing.

In previous articles, I have discussed the time lost working with C-Players instead of A-Players.  Focusing on A-Player weaknesses provides the same poor result.  Your goal as the Leader of an A-Team is to maximize potential of your A-Team.  To do this you must provide them Inspiration, Guidance, and Support.

 

“A-TEAM” LEADERSHIP

If you are focused on strengths, Inspiration becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you allow an A-Player to do things they are good at, the probability is high that they will be very successful.  This success brings self-confidence, pride and rewards.  The success regenerates itself over and over creating a perpetual momentum.  An A-Player in this “zone’ will produce amazing results.

Just because you haven’t focused on the weaknesses, doesn’t mean they have gone away.  With many A-Players weakness remains a “blind spot” which can trip them up.  Here is where a Leader needs to provide Guidance for his A-Player.  You still are not going to try to fix the weakness, instead you are going to Guide your A-Player around their own “mine field” so they can continue to perform without a fall.  A Leader learns how to guide an A-Player through their weaknesses and failings without criticism.

Supporting an A-Player is often one of the most under-thought and misapplied strategies in gaining A-Team Performance.  It becomes a problem when you begin to look at your team in a hierarchical form.  The mistake is in thinking any one A-Player is more important than the other.  Once a hierarchy is established a situation is created where each level is responsible for supporting the level above.  Great Teams are not made of superior to subordinate relationships.  Who supports the bottom level?

The important thing to remember in gaining A-Team Performance is that although you can accept a weakness in an individual, you cannot accept a weakness in the Team.  Therefore, you must also have A-Players who excel at the “blocking and tackling” or sales reports and presentations.  The goal as the A-Team’s Leader is to insure the Team Members, as a collective, possess all of the strengths necessary to build a Best in Class Team that excels in the performance of their collective job and beats the competition.  As a Street Smart Leader you need to Inspire and Guide “every” member of the A-Team to Support the weaknesses of their Teammates with their own Strengths.  There is no perfect person, but we can create an exceptionally high performing A-Team.  Stop the negative talk and focus your culture on A-Player’s Strengths.  This is the stuff of Championship Teams!

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In my article, The People Age, I explained the importance of People in differentiating your company and maintaining a “sustainable competitive advantage”.  In order to successfully do this you will need to build an A-TEAM of people.  You must understand what your A-TEAM should look like and begin a relentless plan of attack to achieve it.  Without an A TEAM, you cannot win!

The easiest way to determine what your A-TEAM should look like is to make a list of attributes you would expect an A Player to have.  I have done this many times with management teams and it is surprising how similar the lists are.  The average list ends up being about twenty to forty attributes.  All of these are important and should be used in your evaluations.  But go a step further and identify the Top Ten attributes which are “must haves” for excelling in your company.  As a double-check, compare your list against your Top Performers and ask yourself if this list accurately describes them.  You may notice your list is very different from your company’s Performance Review Forms.  For example, your Top Ten List most likely does not include items like “neat work area” or “punctuality”.  Performance reviews have their place, but they are more about Surviving; what we are talking about is Excelling.

Here is a sample list of attributes describing an A-TEAM:

 

Once you have your list, you need to begin hiring people who are A-Players.  Your Top Ten “must haves” should set the foundation for a significant part of your interview questions.  This is so important that I encourage you to write out questions and follow-up questions to specifically discuss these attributes.  Work experience is good, but is the person driven?  Can they give you examples of when their drive has attained extraordinary achievement?  Your interviews will begin to take on a completely different approach.  You are no longer looking for someone who can just do the job; you are looking for the A-Players who will make a difference.  As you may know, most people think they are A Players, so you have to dig deep in your questions for verification, check references and even use profile test to help determine if the applicant’s attributes are a match. Hiring A Players is one of your most important jobs.  There are great seminars and books to help you improve this skill.  Take advantage of them.

Before we go further, I would like to make an important distinction.  I refer to “building” A-TEAMS  not “developing” them.  Many managers are taught to believe that it is their job to take C and F-Players and develop them.  This development philosophy usually includes training, motivating, explaining responsibilities and lots of hand holding dealing with old baggage.  This is a complete waste of time!  The idea that you are going to motivate a non-motivated person or create a sense of urgency in a slow-moving person is a futile exercise in the fulfillment of your own ego.  Stop trying to fix people.  This is not your job.  You need to remove people who do not excel and hire A-Players.  It is faster and you will see how the results speak for themselves.  Wouldn’t you rather provide motivation for a motivated person?  Wow! Think about what that might produce!

I was once sitting with one of my toughest mentors, John Smye, explaining to him that I thought I could have a certain manager where he needed to be in the next six months.  He asked, if  I started  looking now  for someone who is already there, how long would it take me.  I replied no more than two months.  He made it clear we did not have four months of time and company money to waste waiting for someone to learn a job they already had.  Not to mention what damage could be done while we waited six months for his group of thirty people to start performing.  He told me to fire the manager and find the right one.  As hard as this sounds, he was right!  Within sixty days I had a fully functioning manager in place who began moving his group forward.  The new manager had no baggage, no agendas.  He just wanted to take our plan and enthusiastically run with it.

Now for the tough part; what do you do with your existing team?  First, show them your list and make it clear you are looking for A-Players.  Next you need to sit down and evaluate them.  By each person’s name, without over-thinking it, write an A, B, C, or F.  Remember, to be an A-Player someone must have “all” of the Top Ten attributes.

You must immediately replace your F-Players. There is most likely some reason they are still there.  Keeping them for any reason (and I have heard some of the best) is just an avoidance of the inevitable and of your duty to the people you work for.  They cost you valuable respect from the rest of your team.  Do it now, within 30 days, and take the short-term pain if you have to.  Six months from now, you will be saying it was the best decision you ever made and wondering what you were so afraid of.

Now let’s talk about the C Players.  C-Players must be gone in 90 days.  If you believe there is anyone on the cusp of being a B-Player this is all the time you have to get them there.  C-Players are killing you; maybe even more than the F-Player.  They absorb most of your time and deliver mediocre results.  Imagine what could be accomplished if you spent that time with the A-Players instead.  Just think how the daily agenda would change from “how do we get people to do what we want?” to “we can do anything, so what should it be?”  The other major issue with C-Players is they lower the bar.  Joe, a C+-Player, sits next to Sally, a C-Player, and has it all figured out.  Since he knows he is a little better than Sally, he is “safe” as long as she is there.  Raise the bar!  Get rid of Sally, get rid of Joe and have Mr. B- looking over his shoulder saying, “I better get with the program or I’m next.”

 

Your culture will be driven by these decisions.  If you allow C-Players to dominate your team you will have an average (and losing) culture. The reality is you will lose your A-Players in a C-Culture.  If you dominate your culture with A-Players you will find yourself leading a dynamic “Can Do” Culture.  And it is important to remember, the new employees you will be hiring are walking into one of these two cultures.  Imagine the difference in their performance by walking them into an A-TEAM Culture.

Some of you are saying, “I would love to do that, but HR won’t let me.”  Or, I once had a manager try to talk me out of this program by saying, “Not everyone is exceptional.”  I realize there are obstacles and this is not an easy task.  But it is easier than dragging those C-Players around on your back.  You must find a way to make this happen.  Understand what HR needs, get your boss on board, set performance standards, support your A-TEAM (instead of the C-Team) and show the visible undeniable difference between the two groups.  You do not need to make everyone in the world exceptional. Just find the exceptional people you need for your team.  They are out there.

I know; what about the B-Players?  Remember you just raised the bar on them.  The bottom half of them just became your new C-Group.  Give it another six months and go through it again.  In a year, you will have the A-TEAM you and your company deserve.

If I haven’t convinced you yet as to how important this is, consider the following:

  • You became a Manager because you were an A-Player.
  • If you are leading a C-Team and getting mediocre results…
  • You are now a C-Manager.

Need I say more?